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Pennsylvania’s pandemic response — a return to Prohibition

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Could you buy me a drink? Please? Any drink will do.

See, in Pennsylvania, alcohol is hard to come by during this COVID-19 pandemic. On March 17 Gov. Tom Wolf, who certainly wants to do the right thing, shut down what we call “state stores.” These are government-run establishments from which we must buy our spirits and most of our wine. In the days leading up to their closing, Pennsylvanians could be found standing in long, Soviet-era-style lines, desperately holding as many bottles as they could.

Our state stores date back to the Prohibition Era. When Prohibition ended in 1933, most Americans celebrated with a drink.

Not Pennsylvania.

Despite the repeal of the 18th Amendment, Gov. Gifford Pinchot still thought such evil spirits had to be controlled; thus, he created the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) — a name as catchy as the state stores it would run. With no competition, this type of bland branding would come to epitomize the agency’s subpar customer service for nearly a century.

Pinchot didn’t hide his distaste for alcohol, stating the PLCB’s mission was to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” Now, nearly nine decades later, Pinchot would be impressed with what he created. The PLCB has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Sure, they’ve updated the names. Some state stores are now called — are you ready? — “Fine Wine & Good Spirits.” Others are even more special, tagged “Premium Collection.” But the ability to discourage Pennsylvanians from purchasing alcoholic beverages remarkably lives on.

The PLCB’s defenders — including Gov. Wolf — will tell you its purchasing power means taxpayers have access to a greater selection at a cheaper price. Only those selections — and the savings — aren’t accessible during this pandemic, and our neighbors in bordering states sell the same spirits and wine for less — because, as you may have heard, competition drives down prices.

So, what do God-fearing Pennsylvanians do when it becomes even harder to buy spirits?

We become smugglers. It’s kind of fun: You cross a state border in your Pennsylvania-plated SUV and buy as much as you can. But apparently our zeal has gotten the best of us. The jig is up. Delaware State Police are stopping Pennsylvanians from entering their stores. West Virginia — West Virginia for crying out loud! — won’t let us in, either. West Virginia!

Some of us had resorted to YouTubing how to become moonshiners when Gov. Wolf — on April 1 —finally took mercy on us and allowed the PLCB to open its online website — — for purchases.

The April Fool’s joke was on us.

The site never works. I’ve been trying for over a week. So have more than a million other Pennsylvanians. We’re all still thirsty. 

Five days after supposedly beginning online sales, the PLCB perpetrated one of the most shameless attempts at spin in history: Officials proudly claimed the site had seen 1.4 million unique visitors. What they didn’t tell you: Over 99 percent of those unique visitors could not get in. In fact, just one-third of one percent of those “unique visitors” we able to enter the site and order alcohol.

The PLCB only opens the virtual door to its online retail shop a few times a day — and at random times. Most of the day, the door is closed.

This closed-door policy applies to more than just the alcohol. PLCB won’t release information related to the website either, telling one reporter that disclosing such information would jeopardize the site’s “integrity” and possibly overwhelm it with “high traffic.” And as we all know, high traffic would actually mean having to serve customers, which would run counter to Pinchot’s dream.

I’ve tried no fewer than 30 times — at all different times of day — with no luck.

Conspiracy theories and urban legends have begun to emerge. Some are in front of their computers at 12:01 a.m. No luck. Others say be ready at 8 a.m. because that’s when the site opens. No luck. A friend said he heard the key is to wait 30 minutes past the hour. He’s as big a loser at this as I am.

Every time we try, the PLCB tells us: “Thank you for being a valued customer.”

“Due to overwhelming demand, the online store is not available at this time,” the message reads. “Please try again tomorrow or in the coming days. We apologize for the inconvenience. We appreciate your understanding and patience in these unprecedented times.”

There are so many things wrong and infuriating with that statement — a statement now seared into the minds of over a million Pennsylvanians.

But you get it now. I’m a Pennsylvanian, so I just accept defeat. That, after all, is how Pinchot wanted it.

So, can I get that drink? Please?

David La Torre is a crisis communications specialist and founder of La Torre Communications, a public relations firm based in Harrisburg, Pa. He was a spokesman and chief speechwriter for former Pa. Gov. Tom Ridge and served as press secretary to Pa. Gov. Gov. Mark Schweiker. Follow him on Twitter @David_LaTorre

Tags Alcohol Alcohol monopolies Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Gifford Pinchot Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Prohibition Prohibition in the United States Tom Wolf

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